Newly emerging popular movements for reform were the driving force behind the Middle East’s major gains in democratic rights last year, according to Freedom in the World 2013, Freedom House’s annual report. But other regions experienced setbacks due to growing authoritarian resilience and resourcefulness.
“Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians,” said Arch Puddington, Freedom House vice president for research. “They are flexible; they distort and abuse the legal framework; they are adept at the techniques of modern propaganda.”
“But especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change,” he said.
The dramatic increase in freedom in Libya was the most surprising finding of the survey, he told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Authoritarian regimes moved to weaken “the elements of democratic governance that pose the most serious threats to repressive and corrupt rule: independent civil society groups, a free press, and the rule of law,” the report said.
While authoritarians have gone on the offensive, the report notes, the United States and other democracies have yet to demonstrate comparable assertiveness and leadership in defending or advancing democracy.
“Leaders of democratic countries should confer directly with leading regime critics and activists and speak out on behalf of the targets of persecution,” according to Puddington and Freedom House president David J. Kramer. “But by far the most important point is for world leaders, Obama in particular, to declare their determination to support people who aspire to democracy — anywhere.”
The U.S. administration has an “uneven” record on democratic solidarity, they write for Foreign Policy:
A program of support for civic movements would be one aspect of a comprehensive effort by the major democracies to reassert global leadership. But even by itself, support for civil society would have the practical benefit of directing attention
to those who are committed to making freedom a reality in the world’s dark corners. And it would send a critical message to the agents of repression that, no matter what our various domestic woes, the spread of freedom is still very much on the agenda.
On one hand, the number of countries ranked in the Free category increased to 90, an impressive share of the world’s 195 sovereign states. At the same time, more countries, 27, suffered significant setbacks in their freedom indicators than showed notable gains, 16, marking the seventh consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements.
Ordinarily, Freedom in the World scores for individual countries move up or down in small increments. For example, over the past decade, Russia has declined from Partly Free status to a well-earned slot in the Not Free category. But its fall was not sudden or precipitous. The bottom-level scores for Freedom in the World range from 0 to 100, and in most years Russia suffered declines of between 1 and 4 points. Only the cumulative impact of those annual declines has made Russia one of the lowest-scoring countries among the world’s major powers. In any particular year, a country that registers a gain or decline of between 3 and 5 points can be said to have undergone a fairly large change.
Yet for the year 2012, several countries registered across-the-board gains or declines that break the pattern of incremental changes. Mali’s decline of 48 points is possibly the most severe one-year drop in the history of the report. Reductions for Guinea-Bissau and the Maldives were also sizeable. On the other side of the ledger, Libya’s gain of 26 points ranks among the most substantial one-year improvements in the report’s history.
The following table shows several of the important declines and gains for political rights and civil liberties over the past year.
While the number of countries ranked as Free for 2012 was 90, a gain of 3 over the previous year, 27 countries showed significant declines, compared with 16 that showed notable gains. This is the seventh consecutive year that Freedom in the World has shown more declines than gains worldwide. Furthermore, the report data reflected a stepped-up campaign of persecution by dictators that specifically targeted civil society organizations and independent media.
Among the most striking gains for freedom was that of Libya, which advanced from Not Free to Partly Free and registered one of the most substantial one-year numerical improvements in the report’s nearly 40-year history. Burma and a number of African countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Lesotho, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, also saw major advances.
Noteworthy declines were recorded for Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
The Middle East showed ambiguous results for the year. In addition to major gains for Libya, and Tunisia’s retention of sharp improvements from 2011, Egypt experienced relatively modest progress. The country held a flawed but competitive presidential election and direct military rule came to an end, yet the elected parliament was dissolved and President Morsi pushed through a new constitution under deeply problematic circumstances.
Moreover, the gains for the Arab Spring countries triggered a reaction, sometimes violent, by authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the Middle East, with resulting setbacks for freedom in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.
The report’s findings were especially grim for Eurasian countries. Russia took a decided turn for the worse after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. Having already marginalized the formal political opposition, he enacted a series of laws meant to squelch a burgeoning societal opposition. The measures imposed severe new penalties on unauthorized demonstrations, restricted the ability of civic groups to raise funds and conduct their work, and placed new controls on the internet.
Key global findings: The number of electoral democracies stood at 117, the same as for 2011. Two countries, Georgia and Libya, achieved electoral democracy status, while two were dropped from the category, Mali and the Maldives.
Four countries moved from Partly Free to Free: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Tonga. Three countries rose from Not Free to Partly Free: Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, and Libya. Mali fell two tiers, from Free to Not Free, and Guinea-Bissau dropped from Partly Free to Not Free.
Some notable trends highlighted in the report include increased Muslim-on-Muslim violence, which reaching horrifying levels in Pakistan and remained a serious problem in Iraq and elsewhere; a serious decline in civil liberties in Turkey; and among the Persian Gulf states, a steady and disturbing decline in democratic institutions and an increase in repressive policies.
Worst of the Worst: Of the 47 countries designated as Not Free, nine have been given the survey’s lowest possible rating of 7 for both political rights and civil liberties: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Two territories, Tibet and Western Sahara, were also ranked among the worst of the worst.
An additional 5 countries and 1 territory received scores that were slightly above those of the worst-ranked countries, with ratings of 6, 7 or 7, 6 for political rights and civil liberties: Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and South Ossetia.
To view the complete findings, click here.